Hot Press

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

Advertisements

FRANKED

The-Frank-Walters

Now that ‘We Are The Young Men‘, the new Frank And Walters single and the first cut lifted from the group’s forthcoming album, Songs For The Walking Wounded, has been sent out into the wider world, I’m going back over twenty-five years to a cracking live show of theirs in The College Bar in U.C.C. in late 1990.

I’d met the band some months earlier – during that summer’s World Cup – and I’ve covered  that aspect of our relationship in detail in a post that’s available here. Having worked with them on some of their earliest recorded material, I was adamant that I could land them some sort of a record deal. As with most other things at the time, I had no idea how I was going to achieve this but I genuinely thought they had the songs and enough sparkle. Buoyed by what I was seeing in other parts of the country – especially by Toasted Heretic, who were based in Galway and who were running a terrific home-spun operation – and by a number of other excellent bands who weren’t seeking the blessing of the Dublin archdiocese, we were confident of landing something. It just didn’t seem like an overly difficult thing to achieve, certainly not in theory.

Although Paul Linehan, the band’s singer and primary songwriter, had dabbled briefly with another excellent local outfit, the 3355409s, The Frank And Walters had no profile at all and even around Cork, existed for the most part in name only. I badgered Les Nolan, then soldiering with U.C.C.’s Live Music Society, into taking a punt on them and asked him to book them to perform during Live Music Week at the college towards the end of 1990. As I  recall it, Les was unconvinced by the whole thing, most probably because he didn’t know them or their material which, at the time, amounted to two pretty cracking demo tapes.  But he eventually saw my point and did the honourable thing ;- in the many years since I suspect he may have revised his views on that period somewhat.

And so The Frank And Walters fetched up in their home kit – purple loons and orange tops, which they’d bought in Leader’s, a long-standing outfitters on North Main Street in Cork – and, despite a Neanderthal sound system and the typical ennui of the sixty-strong student audience, they just levelled the place. Convincing the crowd that they weren’t a cabaret  or joke act – with their stage banter, their name and their look – was possibly the first  challenge, and they saw that one away quickly enough. I’ve long felt that, during the band’s commercial pomp, this aspect of their make-up was never definitively dealt with. And that this, on one level, tends to blur their impact as one of the finest pop bands – and maybe even the finest – Ireland has ever produced.

I’d started contributing some small pieces the previous year to Hot Press magazine – live reviews from low-key shows in Cork and Limerick, mostly and, with Niall Linehan’s squall still ringing in my ears days later, sat down to report on events in The College Bar for the paper. I didn’t see a single conflict of interest ;- I thought they were excellent and, if no one else was wide awake to their potential and if no one was going to push them off, then I was going to do so myself, and with gusto. It didn’t matter, in my mind, that I was actively advocating for them in other areas too ;- to me, this was now a campaign and, with all of us shouldering the wheel, we were on our way. The end-game was all that mattered.

This was one of the first pieces I had published in Hot Press ;- it wasn’t commissioned, I just submitted it blind, as I tended to do with most of my stuff back then. Damien Corless, then on the staff at Hot Press, was a huge support to me back then and he stuck with me when, as evidenced below, I had more enthusiasm and opinions than writing ability. But, in this instance, my hyperbole has ultimately stood up to scrutiny and, reading back now, I stand over every word. Even the contemporary references to ‘ecstacy’, ‘yuppies’, ‘spare ribs’ and Norman Metcalfe, an organist who provided oblique musical clues on the RTÉ television quiz show, ‘Quicksilver’, which was hosted by Bunny Carr.

By June of the following year, The Frank And Walters were playing the Cork Rock festival in Sir Henry’s and were about to release their first E.P. for Setanta Records. Next month they release their sixth album and I await that record like I’ve always done with all of their new material. Some things never change and some things never will.

My review was published in Hot Press in December, 1990, and read as follows ;-

The Frank And Walters  [College Bar, UCC]

Down here in the pit, The Frank And Walters offer some pristine light. They’re a funked-up three piece, found in the rock directories somewhere between The Kinks, The Wedding Present and The Stone Roses. That’s pedigree.

Sometimes they try too hard, and with their purple loons and fluorescent shirts might easily be taken for yet another cartoon pop piece. But when their spiky guitars and their blurted bass-lines do gel, The Frank And Walters are an intoxicating and refreshing little brew. Pure ecstacy.

They’re completely insane. Completely and utterly. Singer Paul cites Shandon’s bells and Norman Metcalfe’s shrill organ as primary influences, and he dedicates Michael,  with itsringing guitars and radical drums to ‘the yuppies who insist on calling spare ribs ‘bodice’’. Character.

But the songs aren’t lost, thankfully. The Frank And Walters have an uncanny knack of writing three minute pop songs to order, where they decorate their bursts with swathes of melody, ever-changing hooklines and devious beat-poetry. And it works, too. Angela Cray,  all noisy wah-wah and intimidating chorus and Walter’s Trip are testimony to a keen eye and a smooth writing hand. And then there’s the various insanities.

Pop gems fly and, despite the shite sound, The Frank And Walters toss their contenders’ bonnets into the ring. With a second guitar, they could be unstoppable. Right now they’re underway, coming shortly into your bedrooms. Just remember to keep your medicines well hidden.

HINTERLAND

Hinterland [noun] :- The back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, the wilds, the bush, remote areas, a backwater.

If nothing else, they certainly choose the name well. Twenty-six years after the release of their excellent album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, you’ll struggle to find Hinterland mentioned in even the grass verges of contemporary Irish music history. Apart from their only long-player and the singles cut from it – the brooding ‘Dark Hill’ and ‘Desert Boots’, the breezy and most out-of-character chart hit – and one or two other minor issues, they’ve left little behind by way of prints and hard evidence. The usual on-line outlets are pretty scant on supporting detail and even the Hot Press digital archive which, to its credit, is usually a deep resource is, in this instance, practically empty.

And I suppose in many ways it’s always been thus. Hinterland never really ran with the pack and, even while signed to Island Records during the peak of the post-U2 insanity around Dublin, were generally regarded as an oddity. While lesser outfits made great welcomes for themselves, Hinterland were rarely seen and seldom heard ;- little was really known of them and they tended to give nothing away.

David Bowie’s death brought Gerry Leonard out from the shadows again and, once more, onto the national airwaves. The Dublin-born guitarist, now trading as Spooky Ghost had, for the previous fifteen years, been at Bowie’s elbow as a member of his backing band and as a sometime collaborator. Thirty years back, he was Donal Coghlan’s other half in Hinterland, a two-man operation that, according to Coghlan’s notes on a long-neglected website, formed in Denmark on January 7th, 1987.

Both Coghlan and Leonard had served their time on the Dublin circuit during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leonard most notably with Above The Thunderclouds [who, for genealogists, also featured Joey Barry, later of Thee Amazing Colossal Men and Compulsion] and The Spies. Coghlan had featured in The Departure – alongside a former RTÉ colleague of mine, Declan Lucas – but, beyond that, had tended to keep his distance.

Hinterland fell out of nowhere, more or less. By 1988, Dublin was often characterised as ‘the city of a thousand rock bands’ and, in the aftermath of U2’s breakthrough in America, was certainly a city caught in the footlights. We’ve dealt with this in a couple of previous posts, and those are available here and here. If Dublin was defined then by any dominant sound, it was the sound of crudely lashed guitars. And if it had a defining career path, that path started on the live stages in the dive bars and venues around the borough. Dublin’s best known bands of the period – U2 themselves, Aslan, Something Happens, The Slowest Clock, The Stars Of Heaven, Blue In Heaven, A House, Guernica – were all compelling live draws who’d cut their teeth in the dens. Reputations were hard earned – and as easily lost – on the unsteady stages in The Underground, The Baggot Inn, McGonagles, The White Horse, The New Inn and elsewhere. And many’s the callow, impressionable four or five piece that was simply swallowed whole and spat back out into the spray, finished.

In the decades before smart technology so drastically re-wrote the rules of the process, most local recordings were made in the various studios that had sprung up around the city. Even the cutting of demo material was often newsworthy stuff to anoraks and alickadoos and word was quick to get around about who was doing what, with whom and where. Like another of their peers, Swim, Hinterland were far more comfortable within the confined parameters of the studio and, having returned to Dublin, both Coghlan and Leonard were working out of a small recording facility on Aungier Street. The two-man line-up gave Hinterland a real cohesion but, like Steve Belton and Pat O’Donnell before them [and maybe We Cut Corners after them ?], restricted their impact as a live act. Where, despite the many sequenced sounds, loops and tapes brought into play, the subtleties at the core of their material ran the risk of being lost in unreliable live mixes and unwelcoming venues.

Like Belton and O’Donnell – who eventually augmented their ranks and re-positioned themselves as The Fountainhead – Hinterland were managed by Kieran Owens, a canny operator with excellent ears who, like many of the acts he worked with, is often under-appreciated in the history of that period. It was Owens who over-saw the band’s deal with Island Records – signed on the strength of strong demo tapes alone – and who brokered Hinterland’s relationship with the young Newbridge-raised producer and engineer, Chris O’Brien with whom, on April 27th, 1989, Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard began work on what was to be the band’s first and only album.

Like many before and after them, Hinterland’s career was pockmarked by a series of unfortunate events, many of them outside of their control and, in essence, they never really left the starting gate. Which, in many respects, only adds to their lustre. ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ is a brave, difficult record ;- it resides, for the sake of reference, in a drawer alongside ‘Til Tuesday, later-period Blue Nile and early-period Big Dish and it divided opinion on delivery. It’s a tender, gentle and unflinchingly personal collection of songs that, as well as piling on layers of nuanced sounds, doesn’t fear the space either. The record is at it’s most beautiful when it pauses for breath and crawls.

Chris remembers the record and the sessions that produced it fondly and was a real help to me as I sought to put flesh on some of my more crudely formed views on one of my favourite records. I owe him a real debt for dusting down his old diaries and for helping to join the dots.

‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ was put down over a fourteen week period in Ropewalk Studios in Ringsend in Dublin, even if much of it arrived pre-packed. Deep, ornate foundations had been laid by Leonard and Coghlan in their own small studio, where the vocals, guitars and keyboards were supported by ‘an Atari sequencer running Pro24 software’. That the band opted to record the album locally was typical ;- common practice at the time was to take long-form recording projects abroad, usually to the U.K.. But Hinterland were happier around the familiar ;- Ringsend was practically in their own back-yard.

Ropewalk was Dublin’s first fully digital studio and, once the band and studio crew fetched up, the primary objectives were to create a live drum sound and to layer-up and polish the general soundscape. Chris remembers the whole process in detail ;- he particularly recalls Gerry Leonard’s guitar sound [‘one of the three most recognisable players in Dublin, along with Ray Harman and The Edge, especially in his use of finger-picking and when he played slide’] and Donal’s lyrics, most of which were rooted in the darkly personal. The sessions were intensive and the working days were long ;- the core crew worked from 11 every morning until after midnight and the only concession to type was the catering that was provided daily on site. At one stage, Island’s flamboyant owner, Chris Blackwell, dropped by – replete in sunglasses and shorts – to listen to the work in progress and to cast an ear on the material.

The band was augmented during the recording – and later when they toured – by Wayne Sheehy, one of the country’s most physical and capable drummers and who, in a past life, had played with Cactus World News, among others. And yet on several tracks, his role was pared right back, often confined to complicated rhythms and rolls :- it was as if Coghlan and Leonard were challenging him, testing the cut of his gib.

 

 

But the playing throughout is magnificent and the record boasts many special moments. ‘Dark Hill’ apart, a soft magic runs through ‘Handle Me’ which, in my view, is the record’s heart. An unsettlingly personal song, it looks into the future and pictures the physical disintegration of a loyal lover’s spirit and body. Elsewhere, ‘Stanley’s Minutes’ records the death of ‘a down-and out from the The Iveagh Hostel’ in the shadows of the Pro Cathedral in Dublin and, over a trade-mark guitar entry concludes with a real cut ;- ‘Thanks be to God it wasn’t suicide. There’s no such thing as suicide’.

And there are others too ;- ‘Senior Romantics’, with it’s breathy backing vocals by Leslie Mooney, the airy ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Dive The Deepest’ among the diadem. And although ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s rattle and pluck, is out of character with both the rest of the record and with the band’s song-book generally, the warm, Mumford-esque gallivant name-checks St. Anne’s Park in Raheny, The Dandelion Market and The Burrow Beach in Sutton on it’s breezy journey through Dublin city. It is, in its own way, as poignant a local snapshot of youth as Whipping Boy’s ‘When We Were Young’.

I can remember the first time I clapped eyes on Hinterland. ‘Jo Maxi’ was a popular youth series that dominated the tea-time schedules on what was then Network 2 during the late 1980s and that, to it’s credit, consistently supported all manner of new music, much of it Irish. Sat there one evening on a small studio rostrum in his fresh black denims, stacked-sole shoes and fisherman’s hat, Donal Coghlan looked typically disconcerted, humble. Gerry and himself gave a basic synopsis of Hinterland’s story, mentioned their deal with a major label and then one of the presenters cued a short clip of the ‘Dark Hill’ video.

Apart from a subsequent Late Late Show appearance in support of ‘Desert Boots’, a couple of minor jousts with myself on another youth series, ‘Scratch Saturday’ and an afternoon encounter with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag on ‘The Den’, not a whole lot more remains in the video archive. The album came and went and the band headed out into the open in support of it, playing one particular blinder in De Lacy House in Cork and opening for Prefab Sprout [with whom, philosophically, the band was very aligned] on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in The Point Depot in Dublin. ‘Desert Boots’, with it’s cutesy video and wide-screen notions, generated an amount of popular traction and airplay but, even then, you suspected that Hinterland were just a band out of time, destined to forever play catch-up.

In a terraced house in Ealing, West London, in 1991, myself and my landlord, Ken Sweeney, would marvel at them. Ken, who was recording for Setanta Records as Brian, had rescued me from a deranged set-up in a squat in Peckham and now, safe and warm and far away across town, we’d swap war stories in the evenings and talk long into the nights about Miracle Legion, Into Paradise and The Go-Betweens. Hinterland too were de-constructed at length in Ealing ;- I’d been sent a copy of ‘Resurrect’, a four-track E.P containing three new songs and also ‘Love Quarantine’, the magnificent ‘Desert Boots’ B-side that the band felt didn’t quite fit onto ‘Kissing The Roof of Heaven’, and we gorged on it. Donal and Gerry were looking ahead to a second album and were flouting their prowess with a handful of optimistic and ambitious songs, ‘Born Again [Excuse The Pun]’ most memorably among them.

But the ship failed to find port and, by 1994, Hinterland more or less ceased to be ;- the band’s efforts to crack the American market were unsuccessful and, eventually, they were let go by their record company. Hinterland exited the stage just as they’d entered onto it ;- quietly and without fanfare and to the sound of a loyal few clapping. When, years later, Donal Coghlan made a cameo appearance on Brian’s second Setanta album, 1999’s ‘Bring Trouble’, it completed a circle of sorts and also reminded a handful of us of what could, should and might have been.

By that stage, Gerry Leonard had already left Ireland for New York and, as he did so, Donal Coghlan repaired closer to home, coming to grips, literally, with the M.S., diagnosed years previously, that was impacting on his mobility, if not his spirit. It was only after the band had released ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ that he revealed his long struggle with the degenerative illness and, by so doing, maybe cast another light into some of the more personal songs on that album.

I last met Donal in 2000 in his apartment in Dublin city. He was in chipper form, confined increasingly to a wheelchair and was a proud father to a young son, Zac. The previous year he’d directed his first short film, ‘The Spa’, and had written another short, ‘Handy Andy’, both of which were made through the Lights, Disability, Action initiative and had been screened at The Galway Film Festival. He was, as always, terrific company, clear in his own mind that he’d left able-bodied society and wasn’t returning, already busy as a campaigner and advocate for disability issues.

I think about Donal Coghlan quite a bit and regularly return to ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’ and, when I heard Gerry Leonard on radio paying tribute to David Bowie recently, he sprung across my mind once again. Donal Coghlan’s writing may not have re-defined popular music and the way we listened to it but, in his own way, has left it’s own kind of under-stated, under-regarded magic as a legacy.

Hinterland clearly mean little in the recent history of Irish popular music and, understandable as that is, they’re in good company. Into Paradise, Jubilee Allstars, Pony Club and Ten Speed Racer are among the notable others who, outside of the blind sadism of die-hards and anoraks, rarely command the acknowledgement they’re due. But ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, with it’s stories and it’s screams, is always worth re-visiting and, knowing more now than we ever did back then, deserves an all-over re-appraisal.

 

 

 

 

 

THIS IS NO DISCO

 

 

On Shrove Tuesday night, February 28th, 1995, I fetched up at Dublin’s  R.D.S. and, as I wound my way up the long avenue, in past the security hut and around the clusters of other invitees and liggers, my mind was cast back twelve months, back to a time when we were all a bit less sure on our feet. A handful of us had gathered to support our friend and colleague, Dónal Dineen ;- ‘No Disco’, the programme he reluctantly presented and the one that I enthusiastically but naively devised and produced was about to claim the Vincent Hanley Memorial Award at the Hot Press Music Critics’ Awards. Much to our surprise, we received one of the best receptions of the night, but then ‘surprise’ is a dominant theme throughout the early history of ‘No Disco’. 

Among the other winners that Pancake Night were A House, who took the gongs for ‘Best Single’ and ‘Best Video’ for ‘Endless Art’ and Terri Hooley, the Belfast maverick who, among other things, founded the Good Vibrations record shop and cajoled The Undertones through their labour. We were in good company and had come a long way in the fifteen months since ‘No Disco’ first stumbled onto the national airwaves at the end of September, 1993.

 The Hot Press event was sponsored by one of the drinks companies, Smithwicks I think, and a few of us stayed around well into the night, Dónal apart. He doesn’t drink and, as long as I know him, has always  been in a rush to beat a hasty retreat. It was a strange old night as I recall it but an important one for the series on several levels. I’d been based in Dublin for the previous number of months, attending a full-time  training course out in RTÉ and, for practical reasons, just couldn’t keep going. I was reluctantly cutting my lingering ties with ‘No Disco’ and, by killing my darling, was doing the show a real favour.

V1XTWRi-.jpg-large

‘No Disco’ was first broadcast on Thursday night, September 30th, 1993, and ran for the guts of a decade. The decision by RTÉ to discontinue the programme certainly created far more of a stir than the decision to start it all in the first place and its fair to say that the series was held deliberately under the radar, regarded largely as more of a strategic and technical experiment than an editorial one. Far from being launched, the series just fell into the schedules, like a flutered old lag around the fringes of a hen night. Brian Boyd, writing in The Irish Times on the week before we aired the first episode, opened his preview as follows ;- ‘Oh dear, they’re at it again. RTÉ are putting on a new young person’s music programme – pass the remote control and make it quick’. And it was difficult to blame his cynicism, especially given how even some of our own colleagues, baffled by what we were trying to do, expected ‘No Disco’ to fail so miserably too.

Twenty-two years after we started work on the very first episode, I’m still routinely reminded of ‘No Disco’. To a generation of middle-aged, music-loving parents now dealing with their own surly teenage sons and daughters, I’ll forever be part of the reason they were so distracted way back, late on Thursday nights, on what was then Network 2. At various work and social events, weddings and funerals over the years, I’ve been subjected to all manner of loose conversation regarding Paul Weller, Tindersticks, Kristin Hersh, The Afghan Whigs and the many other flag- bearers who dominated the early ‘No Disco’ songbook. ‘Ah, ‘’twas a long time ago’, I say, flattered. ‘There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since’. And then I suck the remaining air out of whatever room I’m in. I never learn.

‘No Disco’ has always attracted an awful lot of old guff, and I’ve been responsible for much of it myself. What’s undeniable is that, once this quite bizarre series settled down, it became an appointment to view – or, to our sizeable student cohort, to record on VHS – for a loyal and perfectly deformed audience of anoraks, enthusiasts, freaks and those who had issues dealing with regular society. It was a public health service as much as it was a public service statement.

In hindsight, it was Philip Kampff, then an RTÉ television producer who,among other things, masterminded the Gerry Ryan/Lambo heist as part of Gay Byrne’s radio series and later devised The Lyrics Board, planted the first seeds. During the late 1980s, Philip had exploited the production facilities in RTÉ’s regional studios to help feed a monster children’s television series called ‘Scratch Saturday’. I’d been recruited as a free-lancer onto his programme staff, producing a weekly music slot from RTÉ Cork’s new, city centre base in Father Mathew Street. When, four years later – and after an exotic trip around the fringes of the music industry in London and beyond – I returned to my old desk in Cork and informed the small band of local technicians that we’d shortly be producing an hour of music television every week for national broadcast, I was laughed all the way back out to Blackpool.

‘No Disco’ formed the first part of a broader RTÉ commitment to what was then referred to as ‘regional broadcasting’. The production base in Cork has since expanded beyond all recognition and is a far cry from the empty shell in which we set up shop in August, 1993, both in terms of the quality and quantity of it’s output. And so the next time you see John Creedon take a retro vehicle on a scenic driving tour of Ireland, you can blame Dónal Dineen.

 

 

I was working with Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden in Temple Bar in Dublin during the Summer of 1993 when I was summoned out to RTÉ to meet Eugene Murray. Eugene had been a former editor on Today Tonight and, now running RTÉ’s Presentation Division, believed we could produce cost-effective programming [or, if you prefer, no-budget television] from the skeleton facility in Cork, using the old ‘Scratch Saturday’ template and building on it. Having few other interests, commitments or concerns, I defaulted to what I knew best and, taking my cues variously from previous RTÉ music programmes like ‘MT USA’ and Dave Heffernan’s inserts into ‘Anything Goes’, I put together the most simple formula I could. Ten weeks later we were on air.

On the night of ‘No Disco’’s first transmission, a small group of us met up in Cork to mark what was possibly the closest the county had come to a modern miracle since the statues moved down in Ballinspittle. It was an enormous achievement to actually get the thing on air, all the more so given that neither Dónal or myself had the first idea what we were doing. Cockiness and mindless enthusiasm were always only going to get us so far and, while we were teething, we were often shovelled onto air by a support cast of notables who, I am sure, found the whole set-up quite erratic. I’ve thanked the likes of Tom McSweeney, Olan O’Brien, Antóin O’Callaghan, Tom Bannon and Déirdre O’Grady in the past and I’m doing it again here now :- they rarely, if ever, feature in the ‘No Disco’ story. And yet in many respects, they are the first chapters of the ‘No Disco’ story.

mhB5Iiea.jpg-large

Between one thing and another, it was Marty Morrissey, now a well- known Gaelic Games broadcaster but then one of a number of young reporters billeted in RTÉ Radio Cork on Union Quay, who convinced Jurys Hotel on Western Road to allow us watch our debut programme go out on air from a vacant suite on their complex. The first video on the first programme was ‘Cannonball’ by The Breeders, but by the time we got to the ten minute Dead Can Dance segment, we’d lost the room. Marty barely made it past the opening sequence and, more an M.O.R. man than an A.R. Kane man, wasn’t entirely sure what he was seeing. We didn’t use credits at the end of the programme and, as the first hour wound down and we faded out into the closing RTÉ Cork logo, my friends and colleagues applauded politely and kindly. It was as if we’d been gathered in a courtroom and I’d just been acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. I wanted the mini-bar to open up and swallow me whole.

 

 

The really great things about ‘No Disco’ ultimately un-did it. Based outside of Dublin gave us a freedom and a licence to roam, more or less, as we wanted. We weren’t privvy to the carry-on in Montrose and I fancifully saw myself as a latter-day Wolfe Tone, a colonial outsider railing against the machine. Even though, on one level, my work was defined largely by that same machine.

I used to wonder what would have happened had senior RTÉ managers at the time had their way with ‘No Disco’ ? If, for instance, they had daily physical access to us ? Because after only four weeks on air, ‘No Disco’ was an issue ;- word filtered back to me that Dónal was a real concern, that the music policy was considered far too extreme and that ‘No Disco’ wasn’t really a broadcastable programme at all. But we held our ground – because, I guess, we could – put our heads down and just pedalled harder. I may not have always known what I was doing but I certainly knew what I wanted to do. And then The Irish Times came to the party.

Brian Boyd contributed a weekly column called ‘Hot Licks’ to the paper’s Friday morning arts and music coverage and, from very early on, was down enthusiastically with the series. Word seemed to be spreading, however slowly and, in the days before e-mail, we’d even received a trickle of correspondence from viewers by post. On one occasion the telephone in the office actually rang and a ‘fan’ was on the other end. We had other friends out there too, of course ;- Dónal Scannell was a fellow traveller and a loyal snout inside the belly of the beast in RTÉ while Áine Healy played a starring role as our administrative back-up in Dublin. Apart from Brian Boyd, we had other agents in the music pages too, all of whom sung our praises often and loudly. And it all helped ;- what ‘No Disco’ lacked in terms of audience numbers and branding support, it made up for with that rarest of commodities :- real credibility among a small cohort who could see beyond the obvious.

And Dónal Dineen takes the credit here. I first encountered him through Dónal Scannell, back when we were publishing a free, monthly music paper in Dublin called DropOut. We shared a Southern sensibility and a keen interest in the GAA :- we once spent seven consecutive nights crawling a range of Dublin’s flesh-pots for a feature called ‘It’s a Shame about Cabaret’ and were lucky to survive up in The Four Provinces in Ranelagh when we were turned on by a couple of young bucks from up the country somewhere.

Dónal was in the autumn of his club football career with his beloved Rathmore – he is a contemporary and clubmate of the former Kerry senior goalkeeper, Declan O’Keeffe, and our small production office would often resound with tales from the darker side of the dressing room. Years before Croke Park was re-developed and well before the advent of media boycotts, multiple sponsors, dieticians, head doctors and team flunkeys, Gaelic Games were hugely derided by some of the louder elements of the Dublin media set. Fine writers like Gerry McGovern were routinely dismissed because, with their ‘bog-ball’ and ‘stick-fighting’ they dared to be proud of what made them and maybe brought different values to the editorial tables. Dónal would have gladly swapped any number of Hot Press awards for an O’Donoghue Cup medal with Rathmore and that pursuit, for a time, was every bit as intense as they man himself and his long-running affair with sound.

It was during the course of a DropOut production weekend in a semi- detached house in Knocklyon that we first heard [and he became obsessed with] David Gray’s first album, ‘A Century Ends’, which had been submitted for review by one of the record companies. That was how humble the beginnings of that relationship were and it’s probably fair to say that the growth in David Gray’s popularity in Ireland owed, to a large degree, to the exposure he received on ‘No Disco’, where he was a mainstay. Over the course of the first eighteen months of the series, both David Gray and ‘No Disco’ found their feet, voice and audiences in tandem. And when Dónal Scannell brought Gray to Cork and Dublin for his first nervous live shows here, ‘No Disco’ was the primary driver for that.

 

 

It certainly wasn’t intentional and I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but, looking back now, the tone of the series – dislocated, informed, intense, regional, soft and considerate – was based entirely around Dónal’s personality. He’s by far the most reluctant and easily the most interesting ‘presenter’ I’ve worked with, most probably because he isn’t and never was a presenter in the first place. One of the many things that set him apart, and what disconcerted many of the ‘industry professionals’ who encountered him, was that he saw right through the medium and was absolutely discommoded by it. He never saw ‘No Disco’ as a stepping stone to a career in light entertainment but more of a stepping stone back into obscurity. He was everything he said he was and he had no side ;- he did what he did in the interests of quality music and, to that end, was always more emotionally comfortable and secure on radio, which was his real passion. And so I wasn’t overly surprised to see him unveiled alongside Eamonn Dunphy, Anne-Marie Hourihane and others as part of the first Radio Ireland line-up in 1997, where his late-night ‘Here Comes The Night’ programme was, for a number of years, an essential listen. My only surprise was that he managed to hang around there for so long.

Because there, as on ‘No Disco’, he really did give it all for the music he believed in, and maybe far too much sometimes. We’d routinely argue over set-lists for the show :- he brought the sophistication, the breath of reference and the smarts and I brought the noise and the pale indie shapes. His scripts would often sparkle ;- Dónal’s writing owed more to Con Houlihan than to Nick Kent and he’d agonise and pore over every line. One of his best print pieces was actually about Gaelic football, a gorgeous personal essay he did about Rathmore for the Munster Football Final programme in July, 1995. ‘The special sense of community that arises from the sharing of dreams is a precious part of the life of place’, he wrote. It could have doubled as one of his softly-voiced introductions to a new Stina Nordenstam release or a lost Red House Painters track.

Some of our production priorities were far less romantic, though. Our cameramen and sound recordists were, at least during the early years, actually scheduled onto the RTE News service in Cork and, as happened once or twice, we’d have to abandon or suspend a planned shoot in the event of a news story breaking. It was all very laissez-faire but Joe and Tony McCarthy, Tony Cournane, Paul O’Flynn and Brian O’Mahony gave us sterling service over the years, as did Dónal and Jim Wylde, whenever they were sprung from the Waterford bureau and pressed into service, dispatched to take care of ‘the mad shit in Cork’.

But it was a slow process and, throughout those early months, we were viewed with a combination of bafflement and suspicion, more to do with what we were trying to do than for who we were, I suspect. But once ‘No Disco’ settled, and once the first positive notices started to filter through, a real gang mentality grew up around the series and everyone felt far more secure in the boat. For those who sailed in her, it was a scenic and exotic passage in steerage class, even if it often felt like we were travelling without a compass.

We recorded Dónal’s pieces to camera on the top floor of the RTÉ Cork building every Monday night, working around the demands of the newsroom. Our location was a cold, breeze-blocked space that we’d often supplement with whatever odd props we could pinch from the children’s TV stash down-stairs. I spent ages one afternoon cutting the letters that comprised the words ‘No Disco’ from a load of old Styrofoam wrapping that had come with some piece of technical kit installed in another part of the building. We got ferocious mileage from those self- standing pieces but my hands were welted for weeks afterwards.

But the more established we became, the more confident we grew and we soon reached a point where we didn’t have to explain or introduce ourselves to bands, handlers or publicists, which was another huge leap forwards. Paul Weller, then in the early stages of an unexpected career revival after years in the sidings, requested a date with us and I remember heading out nervously one Sunday evening to interview him after he’d finished a sound-check in The City Hall. He could be a spiky character at the best of times but I was assured that he liked the cut of the programme and had watched a couple of episodes ;- so much so that he sang like a canary and was happy to keep going way beyond the allotted half-hour. It was his father, who was also his manager, who arrived into the posh seats and wrapped us up so they could actually open the main doors and start getting folk into the hall.

 

 

By the start of the second series, the programme scored a rare audience with Lou Reed in Paris, which we gratefully accepted and during which Dónal and his interviewee developed a serious rapport, touching on art, design and photography as they ate, in real detail, into aspects of Reed’s career. It is highly unlikely that, on that entire promotional campaign in support of ‘Set The Twilight Reeling’, Reed encountered anything as far- ranging and informed as the hour he spent with our boy. But by then we’d already done the likes of Suede, St. Etienne, David Gray, Pavement, Kristin Hersh and, most memorably, David Gedge from The Wedding Present, who took the short walk across from Sir Henry’s to talk to us in Father Mathew Street. And we’d picked up a few pointers – and no few brownie points – along the way.

As well as knocking off interviews with anyone of note – and many of no note whatsoever – who came our way, we also began to dabble with live, stripped back ‘sessions’, initially with a number of largely Dublin- based acts who’d travel to Cork for the day and endure us as we’d shoot multiple takes for editing later. Edwyn Collins did a gorgeous two- song set for us upstairs in The Old Oak one afternoon, performing ‘Low Expectations’ and ‘Gorgeous George’ from his comeback Setanta album, while we also recorded in The Triskel with Martin Stephenson, The Firkin Crane with The Divine Comedy and The CAT Club with The Revenants. Dónal had already introduced me to the Kerry singer-songwriter, John Hegarty, and we did a terrific session with him, also in The Triskel, that yielded a golden version of ‘Bonfire Night’, a beautiful song we both adored and which sat perfectly with our own personal sensibilities. I’ve covered this aspect of the series in a previous post about The Divine Comedy, available here.

 

20150823_203237

 

We wrapped up ‘No Disco’’s first season with a live benefit concert, in support of the Cork Aids Alliance, up in Nancy Spain’s on Barrack Street on May 17th, 1994. A local PR company run by Jean Kearney and Maura O’Keeffe had come to me with the suggestion, adamant that the ‘No Disco’ name was enough to carry a show like this, and wanted to guage our interest. I never once thought that we’d ram Nancy’s on a Sunday night with a bill that comprised, basically, of our friends – Engine Alley, Blink, Sack, LMNO Pelican and Treehouse – all of whom put themselves out on our behalf and never requested a single bean. Jim Carroll spun discs long into the night, Dónal did a short set, said a few words from the stage and was basically molested when he wandered through the venue. It was into the small hours when we cleared the hall, pulled down the P.A. and got the visiting bands back safely on the road and, as I made the short journey down-hill, home to my flat on Sullivan’s Quay, I wondered if ‘No Disco’ would be returning for a second series ?

I needn’t have worried. Not only had ‘No Disco’ found and developed an audience, the reviews and the general critical reaction gave us a bit more leeway in our discussions with RTÉ. We’d gotten onto air, stayed there and, by so doing, won friends in unlikely places. So by the time I checked out of the series for good, ‘No Disco’ was on it’s way. But it was Rory Cobbe and Dónal who developed the breath and the scope of the series beyond all recognition, putting flesh on what was still a very crudely formed skeleton. The programme became far broader in tone and in content, and I suspect that Rory enabled Dónal in ways which I never could have done and, by the third series, ‘No Disco’ had really found it’s meter.

I’ve seen Dónal a handful of times in the twenty years since we soldiered so intensely and intently together in Cork. We last spoke when I talked him into doing the voice-over on Ross Whitaker’s beautiful documentary film, ‘When Ali Came To Ireland’, and I was thrilled skinny when he agreed to be involved. Moreso again when I saw the final cut and heard that voice back on screen one more time. I’m not sure when we’ll meet again – given our recent record it’s unlikely to be any time soon – but, when eventually we do, we’ll talk about Gaelic football, enquire after our respective families and recall an old in-joke about Paul Weller headbands.

And then one of us will mention ‘Asleep In The Back’ by Elbow or ‘The Idiots’ by Republic of Loose or ‘Your Ghost’ by Kristin Hersh and we’ll lose ourselves for a moment because, as much as some things change, other things never change at all.

 

THERAPY? :- ‘BABY TEETH’ REVIEW, 1991.

Therapy ? Baby Teeth’ [Wiija Records]

You probably wouldn’t trust Therapy? to baby-sit your little sisters and brothers. And you’d be right.

They’re that kind of band ;- psychotic dog-trashcore noise terrorists who rip ears and emotions right apart, usually in the one-band breath. Therapy? come to us from Larne, but this is straight out of Husker Du’s Minneaplolis via Rapeman’s Washington and Pixie’s Planet Sound. It’s also got touches of grunging Tad and extreme Sonic Youth.

And one other thing :- it should be rather huge.

With Irish pop currently chasing it’s tail in raggle-taggle and jangle guitar circles, Therapy? [and Fatima Mansions and Whipping Boy] shine like beautiful arclights in a hailstorm. Something like ‘Dancin’ With Manson’, for instance, has the same evil ring as ‘James Joyce Is Fuckin’ My Sister’ [sadly left off ‘Baby Teeth’], but has so much blood, sweat and energy that it’s impossible to sit still while it revolves around your room. And while it’s over-easy to lose sight of Therapy? in a hail of gore and horror adjectives, they do actually secrete tunes by the bagful behind the wall of noise.

On ‘Baby Teeth’, Andy’s voices are buried deep in something like a very typical Steve Albini ‘shit-mix’, the prime-focus taken by Fyfe’s enormous snare and Micky’s epilepticly-fingered bass. ‘Meat Abstract’ and ‘Punishment Kiss’ you already know but ‘Animal Bones’ and ‘Loser Cop’ even out-do them here. This is brutal, graphic noise-pop with no compromise.

With Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers finally eating into American pop’s mainstream, who knows but Therapy? might well be the sound of a chaotic nineties chartshow. Right now.

This review originally appeared in Hot Press magazine in July, 1991, on the release of what was Therapy?’s first [seven-track] album of sorts. Using the Hot Press ‘two dice’ system of rating new releases, I determined this to be between ‘very good’ and ‘intoxicating’, and granted it a score of ten out of twelve which, under that system, meant the record was ‘exciting’. Which it most certainly was.

 My thinking was very simple :- Therapy? were an ace live act but, on record, were still very much a work in progress.